DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner; Suite bergamasque; Danse; Deux Arabesques; Pour le piano; Masques; L’isle joyeuse; La plus que lente – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion CDA67898 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 79:36 ****1/2:
DEBUSSY: Préludes, Books 1 and 2 – Philippe Bianconi, p. – la dolce volta LDV 07 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 74:38 ***1/2:
“Hommage à Claude Debussy” = DEBUSSY: Images, Books 1 & 2; Estampes; Arabesque No. 1; CARLO GRANTE: Debussy-Pastiche; ALFREDO CASELLA: A la manière de. . .Claude Debussy; DUKAS: La plainte, au loin, du faune; ROBERTO PIANA: Image d’un faune – Carlo Grante, p. – Music & Arts CD-1267, 67:02 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Here are three releases featuring piano music of Debussy, all of which have some claims on your attention. Unusual and unusually stimulating is Carlo Grante’s Hommage à Claude Debussy; as the album title implies, there are original works by Debussy himself but also tributes to the composer that are one way or another evocative of his style. The most straightforward and thus the one confronting head-to-head competition with legion other versions is Philippe Bianconi’s traversal of Debussy’s Préludes. Then there’s a delightfully chosen program of popular Debussy by the indefatigable Angela Hewitt.
In the case of this last pianist, this is not really a matter of prima inter pares; Hewitt’s Debussy collection takes the palm simply because the playing is so good, the interpretations so right. It seems that like another Hyperion artist, pianist Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt is not content to carve out a niche in the repertory but devotes time and energy to the mastery of one cornerstone after another. When I first encountered her recordings, I thought she was a Bach specialist, but that was only because she was recording a much-praised series of Bach recordings before moving on to Schumann and now Debussy. Somehow, I missed her well-received Ravel traversal of 2002. Incidentally, Hyperion has just released a recording of Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 27 that I’ve read is “treasurable.”
Anyway, the current Debussy disc from Hewitt is somewhat in the Greatest Hits vein, and those whose Debussy collections are overflowing with versions of each of these favorites might consider it dispensable. That would be a mistake. After reviewing a joyless version of the Children’s Corner suite from legendary pianist Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli, Hewitt’s charming version is like breath of fresh air. (It helps that Hyperion supplies its usual top-notch piano sound.) The first piece, the gently satiric Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (with apologies to Clementi) sparkles, while Jimbo’s Lullaby both soothes and elicits a grin, as it should. The capper, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, really swings with Debussy’s fin-de-siècle enthusiasm for the raucous popular music of America that would soon take the rest of Europe by storm.
Fortunately, Hewitt gives us all of Suite bergamasque, not just Clair de lune, each of the four movements placed in exactly the right emotional context and played with beauty of touch, dynamic control, and apt tonal coloration.
A thoughtful inclusion is Debussy’s relatively early Danse, much more often encountered in Ravel’s dazzling orchestration. It’s good to hear the original and realize how adept Debussy was at exploiting the resources of the piano, at the same time it suggests how greatly Debussy’s style would evolve from the Romanticism of this work and Deux Arabesques from the same period to the remarkably different sound world of the Preludes.
Which makes a pretty good segue to Bianconi’s rendition of Préludes, Books 1 and 2. As I noted earlier, competition here is stiff—as it is in the case of Hewitt’s collection, though we don’t have the benefit of a hand-picked program designed to reflect the range of Debussy’s accomplishment in a somewhat lighter vein. Instead, Bianconi’s recording goes head-to-head with around a hundred (!) other recordings, many of which were made by piano legends. However, Bianconi’s competition comes more directly from recent recordings that have garnered praise in many quarters, such as those by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Pascal Rogé, Nelson Freire, and Noriko Ogawa—none of which, I’m sorry to say, I have more than a passing acquaintance with. My benchmark is an oldie but goodie, Krystian Zimmerman’s classic DGG recording.
Comparisons may be odious, but they can also be informative. In general, I’d say that Zimmerman (aided and abetted, no doubt, by his choice of instrument and the quality of the recording venue) produces a brighter, more refulgent sound and surprisingly, almost universally broader tempi. I say “surprisingly” because Zimmerman’s brighter tonal palette seems to cancel out the slowness of some of his renditions, especially the up-tempo ones, making them sound more perky and alert than the timings would seem to indicate, vis-à-vis Bianconi’s interpretations. In the slower pieces, the (on paper) sluggish tempi often help Zimmerman to underscore the poetry of the music. A case in point is one of the most mysteriously dramatic of the Préludes, La cathédral engloutie (“The Sunken Cathedral”), probably based on the legend of the inundated Breton city of Ys (subject of Lalo’s opera Le roi d’Ys). Zimmerman’s timing, at 7:27, is almost a full minute and a half longer than Bianconi’s, but as Zimmerman works the piece up from near inaudibility to a grand climax of chiming bells and echoes of the same, he makes Bianconi’s much swifter rendition seem perfunctory.
In fact, it may just be that in the slower pieces, which the composer often freights with more poetic utterance, Bianconi disappoints most compared to Zimmerman. These include the static but suggestive pieces that introduce each book of Preludes: Danse des Delphes (Book 1) and Brouillards. I’m very happy with the faux pomp and circumstance that Bianconi celebrates in Général Lavine – eccentric and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. PPMPC. I certainly find much to admire in Bianconi’s virtuosic rendering of the Dionysian final pieces in each book: Le danse de Puck and Minstrels (Book 1) and Feux d’artifice. This last shockingly modern piece—atonal, fragmentary—takes us well beyond the orchestral work of the same name by the great modernist, Igor Stravinsky, written only a couple of years earlier.
Bianconi’s recording, inscribed in a Paris church, is closer and less resonant than Zimmerman’s, set down in the monumental space of the Stadthalle in Kessel. As I say, the resulting sound picture for Bianconi is somewhat less bright, more veiled, maybe more “Impressionistic,” which will appeal to some listeners. However, one downside of close miking is the captured huffing and puffing, on just about every track, of the pianist’s breathing. It’s a near-subliminal sound that becomes increasingly distracting the more you listen—really unfortunate, given the impressive pianism on display in many of the pieces. The bottom line, I think, is that this is a version worth hearing and possibly worth adding to your collection, though as an addendum to more consistent renditions such as the ones I’ve cited above.
Carlo Grante’s disc includes the other groundbreaking collection of Debussy piano pieces that people actually enjoy listening to (although the harder nut of Debussy’s late Études should be cracked by more listeners—it would pay a number of dividends). Images, like Préludes, comprises two books (written in 1905 and 1907), though the books are a much quicker read, each containing only three pieces. Still, they bear a similar relationship to the two books of Préludes: the second book of each is more fully Impressionistic. Also, to achieve the greater coloristic effects he was striving for, Debussy composed the second books of both Préludes and Images on three staves rather than the usual two, assuring that at least one pianist (Yours Truly, in fact) will probably never attempt them. The Images are magical works, especially the more complex and poetic pieces of the second book.
Perhaps Grante’s use of a 1924 Bösendorfer Imperial grand lends some air of authenticity to the proceedings, but they’re not necessarily echt because of it. That is, Debussy was dead six years when this instrument was built, and although it’s roughly contemporary, the dark, burnished sonority (and extended bass end) for which the Bösendorfer is renowned may actually produce a sound that Debussy did not have in mind, since his sonorities seem to favor the middle and upper ranges of the keyboard. Given what I’ve said about the interpretive approaches of both Bianconi and Zimmerman and the instruments they play, Grante provides a rather different, maybe slightly unconventional, but certainly not unpleasing or unidiomatic approach. After all, it’s the pianism and not the piano that makes the recital, and I find Grante’s interpretation of the Images very fine indeed. He seems to capture more of the poetry of Debussy than does Bianconi in his renditions and so is just that much more effective, as fine as Bianconi’s playing always is.
The decision to include Debussy’s slightly less popular Estampes of 1903 is an excellent one (at least in the context of this review!) since it shows Debussy well advanced on the road to his hallmark compositional style. One of the numbers, Pagodes, speaks eloquently to his enthusiasm for Eastern musical influence following his first experience of gamelan music at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, just as La soirée dans Grenade is ample testimony to French composers’ attraction for and mastery of the Spanish musical idiom.
But what makes Grante’s disc highly attractive if not indispensable are the posthumous tributes by Debussy’s colleagues Paul Dukas and Alfredo Cassella. Dukas’s semi-familiar La plainte, au loin, du faune. . . (1920) makes obvious reference to Debussy’s Le prémidi d’un faune and is a lovely, heartfelt tribute. Italian (but longtime resident of Paris) Alfredo Cassella’s piece is more dry-eyed but worthwhile nonetheless, especially given the recent much-deserved resurgence of interest in Casella’s music. The contemporary works on the program, Debussy tributes from Roberto Piana and the pianist himself, are elegant and eloquent, fitting pendants to the program.
The only work over which I have an axe to grind with Grante is the first of the Deux Arabesques. Here, Grante plays more slowly than just about any pianist whose performance I’ve sampled. He turns Debussy’s Andantino into a near-adagio. Interestingly, Angela Hewitt’s performance clocks in at only seven seconds faster than Gante’s but sounds much fleeter since she saves her dawdling for the central episode, investing the outer sections with the kind of sinuous verve that Debussy wanted here.
A small matter, really, given that Grante’s performances in general offer so much to enjoy and reflect on. In fact, I’m sorry to end on a sour note, so let me reiterate that Grante’s unusual program, played on an unusual but gorgeous instrument, is superbly recorded and offers, for the most part, excellent renditions of Debussy plus moving tributes to the composer. This makes for a special experience that Debussians won’t want to miss. A lovely studio recording from Vienna, home of the Bösendorfer, doesn’t hurt either!